By: Tim Petruk (Kamloops This Week)

Most of the property surrounding disputed lakes on Douglas Lake Cattle Company land has been the property of the company for more than 100 years and a gate providing access to the area has been locked since the 1980s, a judge has been told.

An ongoing civil trial in B.C. Supreme Court in Kamloops pits one of the largest ranches in North America, Douglas Lake Cattle Company, against the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club — a group claiming the provincial government should be doing more to ensure access for anglers to Minnie and Stoney lakes.

The club is seeking an order allowing public access to the roads leading to the lakes. It contends the gate was not locked until well into the 1990s — after the company attempted to charge for fishing its lakes.

Taking the witness stand on Tuesday, Douglas Lake general manager Joe Gardner said the decision to lock the gate on Stoney Lake Road was made in the early 1980s after company realignment left buildings at Minnie Lake vacant.

“When there’s a crew there, they’re out and about doing things,” he said. “When there’s nobody there, there’s nobody within a 30-minute drive to look after things — and we did get vandalism.”

Gardner said the company also experienced theft, albeit at a small scale.

“Mainly it was fuel,” he said. “We did have saddles stolen from a barn and that kind of thing.”

Gardner, who has been general manager of the company since 1979, said the decision to lock the gate permanently was his alone.

Douglas Lake Cattle Company was established in 1886. Gardner said the company owns 250,000 acres of deeded land, in addition to 15,000 acres of leased Crown land. It also has about 1,000 acres in private leases and approximately 1.2-million acres licensed for grazing.

“Our footprint in British Columbia is about 1.5-million acres,” he said, estimating the number of lakes on the company’s deeded property at about 200. Of those, Gardner said, about 40 have sufficient stocks for fishing.

Gardner said about 20 of those lakes are accessible to the public because of where they are situated.

Gardner said his goal when he joined the company was to turn Minnie Lake into a destination fishing lake.

“I wanted to try to make it into a world-class fishery,” he said. “There was a potential for that. So, we were shooting for a catch-and-release, no winter kill, no summer kill fishery. Fast-forward, that’s where we are now.”

Evan Cooke, a lawyer representing the cattle company, cited in court a “separate trial in the media” pitting the interests of a wealthy American owner attempting to restrict access to lakes on his property against local anglers.

Stan Kroenke is owner of the Douglas Lake Cattle Company. Kroenke The company is owned by Stan Kroenke owns a number of professional sports teams and is married to an heiress to the Walmart fortune. Wikimedia Commons Photo

Stan Kroenke is owner of the Douglas Lake Cattle Company. Kroenke The company is owned by Stan Kroenke owns a number of professional sports teams and is married to an heiress to the Walmart fortune.
Wikimedia Commons Photo

The company is owned by Stan Kroenke, who also owns a number of professional sports teams: Colorado Avalanche (National Hockey League), Los Angeles Rams (National Football League), Colorado Mammoth (National Lacrosse League), Denver Nuggets (National Basketball Association), Colorado Rapids (Major League Soccer) and Arsenal (English Premier League soccer).

Kroenke is married to an heiress to the Walmart fortune. Gardner refused to name the sum paid for the company and its properties.

Gardner said Kroenke has owned the company since 2003, when he purchased it in a court-ordered sale following then-owner Bernard Ebbers’ involvement in the Worldcom scandal. Ebbers, who was born in Edmonton, but had U.S. citizenship, was sentenced to a 25 years in prison in 2006.

Prior to Ebbers’ ownership, the company was owned by a series of Canadian companies.

In his opening statement, Cooke called the lakes “private fisheries.” The cattle company has constructed a high-end lodge at Stoney Lake to support what Cooke called “eco-tourism” activities.

Outside court, Rick McGowan, chairman of the Nicola Valley Fish and Games Club’s access committee, told KTW Douglas Lake Cattle Company began attempting to restrict anglers’ access to Minnie and Stoney lakes in the 1990s.

Rick McGowan and the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club are battling in B.C. Supreme Court for access to lakes surrounded by private land owned by a cattle company. Michael Potestio/Merritt Herald

Rick McGowan and the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club are battling in B.C. Supreme Court for access to lakes surrounded by private land owned by a cattle company. Michael Potestio/Merritt Herald

McGowan said the gate remained unlocked until the mid-1990s and maintains it is illegal for a company to charge anglers for fishing.

The trial, which began last week, is expected to last as long as a month.